Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Barkley Fall Classic- Escape From the Hole: Survival First

I feel a bit like a kid who has just put his hand on hot stove for the SECOND time. You know, that kid who wandered up to a stove burner and curiously grabbed it to see what would happen. The kind of kid who, after his hand has healed, sees a stove burner again and decides to grab it a second time to see what would happen. Only this time it was a gas stove instead of just an electric burner. That’s how I would describe running the Barkley Fall Classic for a second time. But, I am getting ahead of myself here, so let me back up.

I did the Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) last year. It's the training wheels version of the Barkley Marathons, which is an epic 100 mile (plus?) race put on by the King of Suffering Gary Cantrell aka Lazarus Lake. That race is a PhD in suffering that only 14 people (I think that's accurate) have actually completed since the race began back in 1986. Many years, like this year, no one actually finishes the race. It's a race so hard that the world's most experienced ultra runners vie for spots in knowing that simply completing a single lap on the course would be a serious accomplishment. The race is 5 loops. Here's a link to a cool documentary about the Barkley Marathons

Last year, Laz and Steve Durbin managed to get permission from the officials at Frozen Head State Park to run a short version of the race that allows up to 300 people to toe the line and get a glimpse of the Real Barkley. This race is called the Barkley Fall classic-- or BFC-- and it's a fundraiser of the park and the local schools. It's a great cause and the community does a great job of supporting the event. Athletes from the local school, their families, and other folks from the area volunteer on the course and they are amazing.

I've had a morbid facinaction with The Barkely for years now, so I happily threw my hat in the ring last year for the Fall Classic. I completed the BFC last year in 12 hours and 14 minutes. You have 13 hours and 20 minutes to complete the course, which sounds totally do-able. Easy even. If it wasn't a Barkley event. It was billed as a 50K, but most people agreed was around 35 miles with about 10K in gain. It sounds reasonable. It's not. 

I never imagined a race of that length could push me to such depths of pain and effort to complete. I felt that running it was harder the 100s I've run because so much of the race requires you to stare failure in the face. It's not just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until the trail leads you to the finish. The trail is often non-existent, and you have to find your own way in many places. You have to navigate and push on when all your sense and reason says: "This is stupid. Go home and have a day on the couch." But, I persevered, finished, and (even though I LOVED it) I planned avoid that race in the future.

Until fellow bad idea aficionado Josh talked me into going back with him this year. I talked Royce into it, and we joined forces with Josh's buddy Joe and went over to Frozen Head to dance with the Devil again this weekend.

We arrived in Oak Ridge, TN Friday afternoon in time to check into a hotel, hit packet pick up, and eat the last meal of the condemned. We prepped our gear and went to bed early. When the alarm went off at 5, we ate some breakfast and drove over to Frozen Head so we could embark on this wonderfully terrible idea. 

The sun was just starting to illuminate the dark field where the race begins as we made our way to the start line in time to get a good spot near the front of the pack. There was nervous chatter as we all waited for Laz to light his cigarette, which is how he likes to signal the start of the race.

The first part of the race is an easy mile on the road where you pass through the campground and hit the Yellow Gate where the Big Boy Barkley loop begins. The BFC gives you little tastes of the REAL Barkley. Just little ones, mind you. After getting some encouragement from the VT Ultra crew who showed up to watch the show, Josh, Joe, Royce, and I powered up the first climbs staying near the front of the pack and keeping our heart rates in check. We needed to bank time here to make up for the crazy climbs later in the day. I took the lead and tried to measure out our effort based on my recollection from last year. Just enough to bank time without going into the red. 

The first climbs are really just appetizers for the real part of the race, which began after we climbed Deja Vu Hill and headed off towards an interesting out and back called "Testicle Spectacle". We had stayed mostly together though the first few hours of the race, but we lost contact with Josh just before the "Spectacle" decent and climb. Joe, Royce, and I went down the first pitch of what felt like a double black diamond ski hill covered in briars, and we could see the leaders way off in the distance at the bottom where they looked like little ants on a hill. We all thought: Ugh! We have to get to the bottom (fighting our way through briars since there is not real trail here) and then retrace our steps up this insane climb?! Of course we do.

We had to do it all of that knowing that this was not the hardest climb of the day. Our trip down and back up "Testicle Spectacle" was hard. It was hot, slippery, and required some serious scrambling though the briars, but we made it.
Note: that this section replaced a much easier out and back climb from last year's course. 

After we got back to the top, we had a nice trip down "Meth Lab Hill" which brought us to the old Brushy Mtn Prison. Much of this section (Not Meth Lab, of course) was an oddly runnable section that I suspect Laz and Steve included to give the field a fighting chance at finishing. You have to be able run fast somewhere to make it ahead of the cut offs. I was grateful for this chance to bank some time. The prison came into view. It's eerie- even in the daylight- and spectacular. I can't imagine coming into this place on a cold, foggy night like you have to do several times during the REAL Barkley.

Once there, we ran through the actual prison checking out the cells, we got our bibs punched when we made our way down into "The Hole" which was a dank solitary confinement cell. Pictured below is just a normal cell on the tour. There was no light in The Hole. 

After leaving the prison, we got to experience ALL of the Rat Jaw climb. Last year we only did the final two pitches of it. This climb was insane. Seriously. I'm not kidding. It is truly Epic in it's steepness. You literally had to kick steps into the dirt to scramble your way up the first 25 feet. 

If I remember correctly the bottom of the pitch is called "gunnysack hill" because you look like you climbed out of a gunny sack filled with cats when you emerge onto the road at the top of the hill. I have the cuts on my arms and legs that prove that description to be an accurate one. I'm serious. At work on Monday morning a colleague looked at my arms as I sat down in a meeting and said: "Did your cat do that?" I smiled sheepishly and said, "Nah, I had a race this weekend." I am fairly certain they think I'm a few eggs short of a dozen. They're not wrong. 

Anyway, back to Rat Jaw. Joe and I lost contact with Royce on the 2nd pitch up the climb. This climb requires you to just move as fast as you can. It was hot and water is at a premium. You want to get out of the sun (it's very exposed and humid because you're tunneling through briars), so we knew we might get split up. I had made sure that Josh, Royce, and Joe knew the key navigation moves required to find the top of the mountain, so splitting up was all good at this point. 

When Joe and I reached the top, we got our bibs punched at the top of the Fire Tower, and then pushed on towards the mile "22" (not really. I can read a map and it's longer than 22 but that's the beauty of this race. Mileage doesn't matter. It's all relative anyway). Joe and I still had dreams of a sub 10 hour finish at this point, and we ran hard to get to the start of the final loop on the Chimney Top Trail, which holds the final climbs of the day. I stopped to grab my trekking poles out of my drop bag (so kind of Steve and Laz to allow this) and put on some dry socks. This stop meant I lost contact with Joe here. He would have dropped me anyway because I was feeling like I was going to throw up and needed to slow down to recover a bit on the climb. I dug deep and got myself right again by eating slowly and forcing myself to drink some more tailwind as I worked my way up the climb. The 10 hour goal was slipping away, but I was resolute to finish this thing in under 11 hours. Heck, I knew just finishing would be an accomplishment. The finish rate last year was like 50%. 

I pushed on and felt better at Chimney Tops. From there it was just a nice 5 mile trail run back to the finish. I pushed at hard as a I could and managed to make my last mile go very quickly. I ran past Laz at the final aid station and yelled my thanks for another amazing day. (Laz and Steve, if you happen to read this: Thanks for a great event and a chance to see the park again. You put on a top-notch event. Please tell everyone who made it possible that we are grateful.) 

So, how did it turn out for this crew of Bad Idea Club members? We made it. 

Joe finished first and was just a bit over 10 hours for 20th overall. I'm grateful that I had Joe to push me for so much of the race. He's a talented runner, and he did a great job of breaking trail on Rat Jaw.
Then I finished in 22nd place at 10:49. Last year, I was in 115th place at 12:14:55. I'll take it.

As I was recovering, Royce rolled into the finish looking strong. He finished 36th overall at 11:16. Great job, buddy! 

As Royce, Joe, and I were rehashing the race, Josh came rolling in. He looked amazing for someone who had to fight off some dehydration (the serious kind). Josh finished 67th at 12:18. Amazing! Josh is a beast, and he is going to crush Pinhoti this year. 

It was really cool that we all managed to finish. Of the 219 starters only 101 made it to the BFC finish line in under 13:20 minutes. I'm proud of our crew. And this was our reward: 

But, we got WAY MORE than a trinket that shows we were stupid and hard enough to suffer through this race.

We got the satisfaction of staring failure in the face and succeeding. This race is a true test of fitness, resolve, navigation, and dedication. It's also a hell of a lot of fun (the Type 2 kind).

I'm really happy to have cut almost an hour and half off my time from last year, especially because the course was longer and harder than last year. When I finished, Steve Durbin mentioned that folks who finished both years generally took 1 and 10 minutes LONGER on  to complete the course. That makes for a pretty big swing for me in the right direction. I'm really grateful that Ginger has been such a huge help in my efforts to improve as a runner. She's running quite strong these days too, so look for a great result from her at the New River 50K next month. I'm also in debt to all my friends who run with me and push me on a regular basis. I'm mostly just grateful that I have the ability to go out and challenge myself like this and do it with such great friends. 

Will I grab the burner a 3rd time. I'd love to say no. I said no Saturday night. But Frozen Head State Park has a unique pull. Kind of like the Bermuda Triangle. So, who knows? We will see what life brings over the next year, and we can all decide if we want to dance with the devil again and stare into that abyss another time. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Iron Mountain 30 Miler: Burn the Ships

I have been wanting to run Kevin Townsend's Iron Mountain race for the last couple of years, but i just hadn't managed to work it out until this year. I'm really glad I did. Kevin and his merry band of volunteers put on a great race over in Damascus, VA on the Iron Mountain trail. He offers a 16, 30, and 50 mile option. Since I have the Barkley Fall Classic coming up in a couple of weeks (Ouch), I opted for the 30 mile version since I didn't want to burn too many matches so close to a return trip to Frozen Head to dance with the devil (Laz) again this year.

Ginger was doing the 16 miler along with Linda, and fellow Bad Idea Club member Josh was doing the 30 miler with me. Jordan was defending his title in the 50 mile race (He won again! He is a human terminator).

We camped out at Bear Tree Friday night after packet pick up, and then got up Saturday morning to head down to the Start/Finish for check in at 6:45. It was nice morning, and the temps were warm but comfortable. I had taken a couple of days off leading up the race, so my legs felt fresh. I  have been feeling strong since Eastern Divide and have managed a couple of nice, long training runs in the mountains the last few weeks, so I was feeling great about Iron Mtn. My strategy was simple. I was going all in on this one. The mantra for this race: Pack your coffin and burn the ship. For once, I wanted to be as close to the head of a race as I could get. My goal was sub 5 hours and a top 10 finish. I wanted to either get that or explode into a million pieces and at the very least have a very hard effort to prep for the BFC in a couple of weeks.

The race begins with 4ish nice, easy miles on the VA Creeper trail as you head up towards Straight Branch and the access trail to the Iron Mountain trail. Josh and I started at a conservative pace to get warmed up, and then I slowly started ramping it up as we got closer to Straight Branch. Once I got to the top of the Straight Branch climb, I started pushing myself to close the gap as much as I could to the lead group that went out a little faster than Josh and I wanted to go. As I worked my way along the Iron Mtn trail, I moved up through the crowd and managed to catch up with some of the 50 milers who had started 30 minutes before the my race did. (Not Jordan, of course. He was long gone).

I was feeling great, and sticking to my plan of eating a Vespa or gel every 45 minutes and refilling my  hand bottle at each aid station. I went with Tailwind in the hand bottle to get some liquid calories to make sure I stayed topped off. Even though it was warm, I figured one hand bottle would be enough since the longest stretch between aid was 7 miles. I did stash another bottle in my drop bag at the turn around (16 miles) in case this gamble didn't pan out and I was running out of fluid.

I moved quickly through the second aid station, grabbing a couple of PB&J square as the awesome volunteers refilled my bottle for me. I normally try to be self-suffient, but they were so nice that they insisted on filling it for me. Then, I took off toward the turn around. Coming into the last two miles on the out, the leader flew past me on the return trip. He was quickly followed by Leif (one of the amazing vast VT Ultra guys). I kept counting runners who were in front of me. I reached the turn around in 8th place. So far, my strategy was paying off. When I came in, Hannah and Jonathan were at the aid station cheering on all the VT runners and they were such a huge help fixing me up with more tailwind in my hand bottle and getting me back out on the course in less than a minute. It was a fast aid stop, which I was grateful for when I started back towards the Finish line and was able to see that I was only a couple of minutes in front of the 9-11 place runners.

Being content with 8th place was not in the plans. I wanted to push this race as hard as I could, so I kept repeating the mantra and pushing as hard as I could. Truth be told, I was thinking of trying to finish in 4:45 instead of just sub-5. At this point, it was a stretch, but possible, so I kept hammering. Around mile 20, I passed the guy who had been in front of me. As I caught him, I ran with him for a few minutes, chatting and sharing encouragement, and then when I had recovered a bit I started pushing to put some time into him and make sure he couldn't catch me right back up.

I started to flag a bit on the final climb before the aid station around mile 22. I looked at my watch and saw that I was moving too slowly. I started playing the mind games: Is someone coming from behind? Am I going to lose a spot. I knew Joey Turner (another local guy in my age group whose time in his previous races I'd used a gauge to know what would get me top 10) was only a few minutes behind at the turn around. Instead of focusing who was behind, I reminded myself that you can only move up if you focus on who is in front of you-- not who is behind you, so I picked up the pace. When in doubt, pin it. So I did.

The last aid station was another blur as the volunteers (thanks, Tammy and the crew) helped me quickly get though the aid. I slammed a cup of Mtn Dew, a coke, and grabbed a few PB&J squares and a banana and took off again. When I got back to the Straight Branch junction, I grabbed a water jug from the stash there and topped off my hand bottle. Sub 5 was looking possible. Sub 4:45 was slipping away, but I kept racing like it was still a possibility. My strategy with time hacks is to run like they are possible until they actually pass. It seems to work really well.

When I got to the final decent, which is a two mile section that is crazy steep and littered with baby skulls, I just kept pushing as hard as I could. Finally, I got through that section, still feeling strong, and hit the last mile marker that appears when you hit the pavement and leave the woods. 1 mile to go. I had 7 minutes and change to cover that last mile if I wanted to get in under sub 5. At that point, I just decided to run as hard as I possible could. I gave it all I had. I snuck a glance at my watch. The pace: 6:35. But, sub 5 was right there for the taking, so I dug deep and took it.

I came into the finish at 4:59:34. 7th place. I made it. And not without the help my awesome VT Ultra friends and the great volunteers. My aid station time for the race was 3 minutes. I could not have done that without the help, so thank you so much!

Here's a link to the Stava data if you want to see the course. Note: my Garmin consistently reads short on mileage:

It felt great to achieve the goal and have a great race. I owe Ginger a great debt for helping me train and for making sure that we have been eating so healthy lately. Her support is so important to me and I am so grateful.

I also am really grateful to my friends (like Jordan, Brett, Royce, Josh, and the whole BBurg crew) for pushing me to get faster. The VT Ultra crowd has been such an inspiration and has really made me have new love for racing.

Ginger had a great race in the 16 miler and she came in 7th female. She is a beast! She is such a great runner and the worlds most awesome wife. She got me registered for Umstead when she finished!!! She rocks!

It was another fun weekend, and I (as always) feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have such a great family and amazing friends. Now, it's time to get back to work, finish prepping for the BFC over in Frozen Head, and continue enjoying life.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Draper Mile: A Blacksburg Tradition

Since we moved to Blacksburg last summer we've found no shortage of cool events. Last year, Ginger and I tried our feet (ha ha) at the Draper Mile. It's a one mile foot race that starts near our house and ends one excruciating mile later downtown at the Stepping Out Festival. We don't typically run in races that short because Ginger and I tend to favor longer distances where you can measure out your effort and enjoy the scenery of the woods (read: ultras). But, we like hanging out with friends and enjoying local traditions, so the Draper Mile has become a bit of a tradition. Last year was our introduction to the crazy race, and we had a a lot of fun. Ginger even placed in her Age Group last year. This year, she did even better!

Lois came into town for her now traditional Stepping Out Festival visit on Friday afternoon. It was great to see her and catch up before we headed downtown for the race. I left the house for a little warm up run around the neighborhood while Ginger and Lois parked the car downtown with some fresh clothes so we could enjoy the festival after the race. I met Ginger at the Start/Finish just before the race after she'd had a little warm up too.

The race was as painful as I expected it to be. My goal was to see how much time I could shave off from last year, and, hopefully, find my way onto the Age Group podium for a race. I lined up at the start and just took off running as fast I could. It was a little crazy with people getting their feet tangled up in front of me, but I managed to stay out of the chaos and work my way to the side of the road so I could have some room to maneuver. At just past the halfway point, I heard a volunteer calling out splits and I was somewhere around 2:40. My lungs were burning and my chest was really yelling at me: "What are you DOING?!!" it screamed while my legs protested. In true Jens Voigt fashion, I said, "Shut up, legs. Do what I tell you!" and pushed on with my face crinkled up in a mask of pain. I was, as the commentators on the Tour De France might say, unpacking my suitcase of courage all over the road. I was keeping my eye on Ryan, a quick guy from VT Ultra community, and just hoping to close the gap between us before I got the finish line.

I stopped my watch as I crossed the line at 5:16.

This was good for about 20 seconds faster than last year, and second in my Age Group. I'll take it.

Ginger's race (women's elite) went off about 5 minutes after my race did. So I had a couple of minutes to try to start catching my breath and then try to see her come across the finish line. I wasn't able to get to a good spot to see her finish, but I found her as she was walking away from the finish line after running an impressive 6:11!!!!
The girl is quick! Quick enough to be first in her AG. Yeah, she's awesome!

After catching up with Lois, Jordan, Kristen, Heather, and Ryan for a few minutes, Ginger and I did a little cool down jog before joining Lois for a slice of pizza from Benny's. So good!! If you haven't had some, don't sleep on it! Then we enjoyed an evening of walking around taking in the festival and catching up with Lois.

Saturday morning Ginger and I had a nice run on the Huck and then we went up to Floyd to see the Farmer's market and enjoy a little tourist time.

Sunday was another great day as we took Lois on one of our favorite hikes: The Cascades in Pembroke. I was so proud of Lois for making this tough hike look easy.

After the hike we went to the Palisades for brunch. If you haven't eaten brunch there, you'll want to remedy that ASAP. IT. IS. AMAZING. Naps were in order after brunch before we had a great dinner with Jordan and Kristen.

It was a great weekend. It's always nice to have family in town and hang out with friends. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Catching up: New River Trail 50 Mile Meeting of the Bad Idea Club

A few weeks ago the boys and I decided it was time to act on a bad idea that Brett floated last winter when we were getting ready for Umstead 100: Running the length of the New River Trail all at once. He figured it would be a good way to knock out a 50 mile training run. We couldn't get it together prior to Umstead, so it kept floating around in the background. Royce has been wanting to make the jump to running 100s, so we decided an all night training run was something that he needed to get under his belt. This created a perfect mix of ingredients for a great bad idea. With nothing pressing on anyone's calendar this summer, we've all been itching for a little adventure. Jordan was all recovered from San Diego 100, Royce has been killing it mileage-wise lately, Brett has been wanting to get out for a good long run, and Chris has fully invested himself in the world of bad ideas after the Eastern Divide 50K and Sundown 5K nonsense we did back in June, and I'm always up good time on the trail with friends. So, we decided to set a date and make it happen. Friday July 17th seemed like as good a time as any.

The boys assembled at our house on Friday after work, and Ginger saw us off as we loaded up the cars around 6 p.m.

First, we drove down to Pulaski to drop off a car at the Northern Trailhead, then we headed on down to Galax to get started.

Our journey began at 8:23 Friday night. It gave us a little time to get rolling before we had to break out the headlamps. The temperature at the trailhead was 86 degrees. We all thought it would cool off over night. But we were sooooooo wrong. It seemed like it only got hotter as the night went on.

The miles ticked off as the sun went down, and we jogged along having a good time. Somewhere around mile 2 someone said, "48 bottles of beer on the wall" in the sing songy tone of the 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. We all had a good laugh and hoped someone would remember to bring that back at mile 49. We didn't. But we did have a lot of fun suffering our way through a lot of chaffing and what felt like a night of running uphill on a course we figured would be flat or totally down hill since we were following the New River downstream (It flows south to North). The lesson there: 50 miles is 50 miles and it's going to hurt no matter how "easy" you think the course is going to be.

I had the worst chaffing I've ever had on a run in my life. The heat caused me to feel pretty ill for a couple of miles and I even considered dropping out at one point. But, Jordan, Chris, and Royce all made sure I knew that dropping wasn't really an option. I also thought a lot about Travis Macey's book and the idea that no matter what happens: It's all good mental training. I vividly remember thinking: Would you drop at Leadville or Western States if you were chaffing? The answer is certainly not. So, I pushed on and decided it was a good lesson in pushing through the discomfort that you encounter when doing something that is difficult.

The sunrise was worth every bit of discomfort that I was feeling:

It was a wonderful sight to see the sun peaking above the horizon as we made our way to Pulaski in the early morning hours. We arrived at the northern trailhead in Pulaski happy to be back at the car and ready for breakfast. With 9:23 of moving time and 10:23 of total time since we left the trailhead in Galax, we all felt good about our effort. Here's the link to our Strava data if you're interested:

We were hoping to eat breakfast at the Draper Mercantile store on Saturday morning, but we finished too early. I won't complain about that. We decided to hit the IHOP in Dublin since it was open. They had a buffet. We dominated that buffet and amused our waitress and all the patrons as we shuffled into the restaurant looking like we'd been on a bender. I was walking with a hilarious gait because my legs were so chaffed (should have worn compression shorts), and I'm sure I was a sight to behold.

We couldn't find anyone's data on having completed the trail before, so we are thinking we have the FKT for the New River Trail from Galax to Pulaski at 10 hours and 23 minutes. Of course, someone else may have done this and not published the data. We weren't trying to go fast, and I'm certain someone will run it faster as soon as they have the idea to go knock it out. Plus, Jordan could have easily bolted off and finished hours before we all finished together. The FKT thing is just a funny side-note here, not the goal or the plan. Our goal was to have a fun 50 miles of communing on the trail with good friends. We accomplished that for sure.

My final thoughts on the adventure:
1. Running with friends for long distances in the woods is always worth it.The stories you have to share afterwards are always worth the price of admission.
2. If you're going out to run 50 miles, don't forget to plan for chaffing.
3. The New River Trail doesn't offer much in the way of water resupply. Plan for that.
4. I'm pretty happy with my fitness level. My legs weren't sore afterwards, and I'm pretty happy about that.
5. Big ups to Chris for running 50 miles for the first time in his running career.
6. Bad ideas are the best ideas. I'm looking forward to the next one already.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Eastern Divide 50K: A Weekend Full of Classicly Awesome Decision Making

It's been a fun filled summer so far. June began with a cross country road trip to crew/pace my friend Jordan at the San Diego 100. Jordan CRUSHED the race finishing an impressive 11th overall.

It was a great trip. I was able to visit friends all across the country, hang out with my cool cousins in San Diego, do some exploring in Zion National Park, and get some running done in my favorite place (other than Blacksburg) in Leadville. I spent 3 days running in Pbville and was very happy to see some real progress in terms of my ability to run the Pb100 course. Check out this view from the top Hope Pass.

Getting to the top of Hope feeling good was a real confidence builder, and I'm hopeful that I'll have better luck getting a lottery spot in the race next summer. After two weeks on the road, I was ready to be home. I was missing Ginger, YD, Seamus, and Mookie. It was good to get home.

Last weekend was one of my favorite weekends we've had since Ginger and I moved to BBurg. If you've seen the movie Highlander, you know about The Quickening. That's what this weekend was like: Some of my favorite people assembling in one place to epic things. Jim (Turbo) rolled into town on Thursday, Chris, Josh, and Jill arrived on Friday night. Having a houseful of good friends is one of my favorite things in the world. Brett and Michele officially moved back to town this week, and then a whole host of awesome BBurg folks (Looking at you Royce and Linda) joined us for the Eastern Divide 50. We got an added bonus as Nelson and Robin showed up at the start line.

After a packet pickup Friday night, we had good dinner at our house and then got some sleep to prepare for Eastern Divide 50K Saturday morning. We all slept as well as you can sleep the night before the race, and then arrived at the start line pumped for a big day.

As the gun went off, Josh, Royce, Brett, Chris, and I began the first climb of the day at a reasonable pace.

Ginger, Turbo, Linda, and Nelson began the climb at smart, measured paces, which enabled all to have great races.

Eastern Divide is one of my favorite races. Kirby (the RD) does an amazing job and the course is great mix of hard climbing and very runnable sections. I had a really rough day last year there, but I knew I was trained and ready to have a good race this year.

I had a good strategy and a solid goal. My goal was to get finished in under 5:30. A reasonable goal given the changes in diet and training since last year. My strategy was to hopefully stay with Josh, Royce, and Brett without going too hard in the first 9 miles. After that, I'd begin to open it up and see what would happen. At mile 6, Brett, Royce, and Chris began to pull away. Josh and I stayed with the plan of a conservative start, so we just watched them head up the trail feeling confident in our plan. The aid station at mile 9 is where the course turns to a very runnable, mostly downhill section until the climb that begins around mile 16. I was feeling great and began to open it up. I was able to pull Brett back (his life has been crazy lately so he was basically running from the couch). During the mile 16-18 climb I was able to start reeling in people and gain some time. The climb felt easy, so I keep pushing. I was careful to be quick through the aid stations. In fact, when I got to the aid station at mile 24ish that Jordan and Kristen were running, I was so focused that I forgot to partake in the awesome freezy pops they were handing out. Jordan looked surprised when I showed up before the usual suspects, and he encouraged me to keep pushing. So I did. After Jordan dumped water on me to cool me off, I took off chasing the three people I could see cresting the hill at the end of the open field past the aid station. I was able to catch and pass this first two people and create some space. The third runner proved more difficult. I was able to pass him, but I couldn't shake him.

In the end, he was able to catch me back up and pass me again. No matter, I was having a great day, and  a lot of fun. The sub 5:30 goal was pretty much in the bag at that point. I kept pushing though. I was thinking that going sub 5:20 would be cool. In the end, I settled for 5:23 and a 14th overall finish.   (Almost 2 hours faster than last year)

Michelle and Jill were a little surprised to see me at the finish. They weren't expecting me yet. Chris had come in at 5:11, which is AMAZING considering it was his first ultra. He is a talented runner, and I was so happy to see him do so well.

After resting and stretching for a few minutes, the buddies started rolling in. Ginger came in at a very strong 6:23 looking fresh and very happy to have beaten her goal by more than 30 minutes. She is awesome, btw.

Linda, Nelson Josh, Brett, and Turbo also had successful days. It was Linda's first ultra, and she turned in an incredible time beating her goal by half an hour.  She is a strong runner, and I was very proud to see her knocking this distance out for the first time. Nelson, always an inspiration, came cruising in with his classic smile. Josh, had some knee trouble (a nagging injury), but he still took 20 minutes or so off of his time from last year. Brett pushed through all that got thrown his way from a tough spring of moving back to town and finished like a beast. Turbo wins the guts and courage award hands down. Being from Dallas, TX means that hill training is not very possible for him. He fought through cramps and big climbs to crush his goal of finishing in under 7 hours. It was such a fun day of watching my friends explore the edge of what's possible.

We all relaxed, recovered, and headed back to the house to get showers and clean up before the SECOND RACE OF THE DAY.

That's right: the 2nd race of the day was the Downtown Sundown 5K. We took Jordan's "More Miles More Fun" mantra to heart. Well, it wasn't really a race for us. It was really a way to just have more fun. Chris ran an impressive time while the rest of us cruised it together enjoying our silly outfits, glowing gear, and embracing the foolishness of doing a 5K after a 50K. We all decided to wear the Eastern Divide race shirt (great job on the shirts this year, Kirby) in the "Wear Your Concert T-Shirt to the Concert" goofy mindset.

All in all, it was a great weekend. It was great to see so many friends and have such a great sense of community around the house. Blacksburg is truly a special place, and Eastern Divide is a great race. Check it out next year. Here's a link to my Strava data from the race if you want to check out the course:

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Whole 30, running while changing my diet, and the start to Summer

I've had almost two months to rest and recover since Umstead. Recovery was by far the easiest recovery from any 100 that I've done. I was, of course, all busted up feeling for a few days. I flew out to Wyoming for work on Monday after the race, and getting through the airport was a bit of a challenge. But, after a few days, I was even ready for some easy runs on the trails around Laramie. They were too good to resist.

After a few weeks of running just a bit (25ish mile weeks), I started getting back to normal mileage. With no big races on the calendar, it was easy to just run for fun (which is how I normally roll anyway). Umstead did light a bit of a fire for me though. For the first time, I'm thinking about races as a chance to really push myself to go a little faster and see how fast I can go instead of just finishing. That being said, it's really still all about having the chance to explore cool places with my friends.

As part of my effort to see if I can speed things up, I decided to join Ginger in attempting the Whole 30 diet. Here is a little info about it. Basically, it amounts to cutting sugar, grains, and junk out of your diet. We weren't really eating POORLY, but I was drinking a lot of coke, eating candy, and too much ice cream. I thought it would be a neat experiment, and Ginger really wanted to do it. I really like doing cool stuff with her, and I wanted to be a good teammate, so I signed on.

Here's kind of how it went. 
Week 1:
EATING: Life as I knew it was over. I felt hungover all week. I was tired, and grumpy. Really. Ask Ginger. I'm normally ridiculously positive, but week 1: I. WAS. NOT. A Happy. Camper. At one point I said something like: I've eaten a sandwich for lunch every day of my life. This sucks! Then, our faculty meeting at work was full of Panera sandwiches and cookies. Walking away from that and eating a salad with some chicken on it was no fun at all. But, I didn't want to disappoint Ginger, so I didn't cave. If I'm honest, I have to say that was my only motivation at that point. I hadn't bought into the concept fully. I am incredible skeptical of any kind of fad diet. I also don't like absolutes or any website or book telling what I can or can't do. At that point, it was really just about the team. I was also super stressed that I had a really hard run on tap for Saturday. An all day affair on the AT that would include over 6,000 feet of elevation gain. How in the hell am I going to do that without sugar?

RUNNING: All week, I felt crappy on my runs. In fact, I felt crappy from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to bed. But by Saturday morning, my blood sugar had stabilized, and I felt OK. On the run, all I ate was 3 Vespa packets, 3 Lara Bars, and some bacon that Josh and I cooked up the night before. I felt great all day. It was crazy. No gels. No cookies. No Coke. No added sugar. I normally would have been bone crushing gels and Honey Stinger waffles. That run made a believer out of me. During week 1, I ran 49 miles with over 7,000 feet of elevation gain. So, you CAN run a lot on this diet.

Week 2:
EATING: Things got a whole lot easier. I wasn't craving sugar as much, and I wasn't mourning bread the way I had during week one. During trips to the grocery store, the Reese's Cups were glaring at me like I was some kind of snob, but it wasn't too bad. Again, Ginger deserves the credit here. I have never liked cooking, so she was carrying the load of making sure we had good, healthy food to eat each day. I did lots of dishes, but that's really not much help when you're trying to figure out how to feed two ultra runners who are mourning their old eating habits. She was a rock star. Cooking up Paleo Pad Thai, awesome meatloaf, and a host of amazing dishes. We were also bone crushing scrambled eggs for breakfast every day like we had an army of chickens in our backyard. Trips to the grocery were a constant part of the daily routine. I found that adding salmon to my lunchtime salads (on days when we'd eaten all the leftovers) was a great solution. I'm grateful for all of the research that Ginger did to make sure we had interesting things to eat. Ask her for some recipes, she'll hook you up.

RUNNING: Daily runs during week two got easier. I was no longer worried about how I'd feel without gels or any other kind of sugar. On Sunday, Jordan and a few other VT Ultra folks and I partook in the annual VT Ultra tradition of the "Oldfarathon" which is 9 trips up the Gateway trail out at Pandapas pond. It is a BRUTAL day. Up and down Gateway for 7 hours (much less for everyone else). 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Again, no gels. Just Lara bars, apples, and one Vespa packet. It was HARD. I'm already not looking forward to next year. OK, that's a lie. I'm looking forward to seeing how much faster I can do it next year. During Week 2, I ran 53 miles with almost 10,000 feet of gain. I felt even better during week 2, so this diet works.

Week 3: 
EATING: Now, things are exponentially easier. I've noticing that I'm losing weight. I'm also waking up at 6 am ready to get going. I'm still drinking coffee, but now I'm drinking it because I enjoy it. Not because I HATE mornings. Ginger is rocking things out in the Kitchen and there is always something good to eat for lunch, dinner, and breakfast is getting better and better with Ginger experimenting with frittatas. Still missing bread, but not really missing candy. When I pass by the pastries in the grocery, the pull to grab one is not all that strong.

RUNNING: Running this week was easy. I didn't even think that much about how hungry I felt without a PB&J before a run after work. I was eating a Lara bar before I went out some days. Other days, a handful of almonds was enough. On Saturday morning we went up to the Hat Creek 24 hour relay with Royce, Jordan, Kristen, and Linda. This was a little bit of a challenge. We had to figure out how to fuel for a 24 hour relay without a kitchen. But, we had already figured out the plan of grilling a bunch of chicken to have in reserve all week, so we just grilled some extra and brought it with us. Royce brought a camp stove, and we cooked up eggs and other stuff. Problem solved. I have to say I was really surprised at how easy it was to ignore all the cookies and candy that normally make up aid station fare. We won our division, by the way. We ran 135 miles in 24 hours. The way to the podium for me is to team up with my fast friends in a relay :)

The only real challenge was Sunday afternoon after the race. I was STARVING. We had eaten all of our food, and the race fare didn't have anything for us. I was GRUMPY as we drove through the middle of nowhere looking for somewhere to eat. I was unhappy that finding food was such a challenge. Ginger and Royce were patient, and we found a Panera bread where I got a great salad with chicken. During Week 3, I ran 43 miles and felt great. I also noticed that I was losing a bunch of the fat I was carrying around.

Week 4: 
EATING: During the last week, it was really pretty easy. Ginger had really figured out a system, and we were stocked with good food in the house all the time. I also found that I actually CAN cook. She went out of town on Friday night. I was left at home to figure it out. I saut├ęd some potatoes and grilled some chicken for my salad. I even marinated it using Ginger's recipe. I have to say I was proud of myself. Normally, I would have just gone out to get pizza or made sandwiches all weekend. Now I found out that I can contribute to the cooking. And it's kind of fun. Who would have thought?

RUNNING: Week four was a light running week. I was wrapping up the semester, and with nothing to really focus on, I took it easy. Ran mostly around town with a couple of trail runs for fun. I felt great on most of my runs, but did have some sluggish days where I didn't eat enough. Mostly though, I felt really good. The biggest thing I noticed is that I'm feeling faster and lighter. Week four was 30 miles with about 3,000 feet of gain.

It's not really the end. For me, I think I'm done with the strict, "I can't eat" this or that. But, the results are so good that I will keep going.

Over 4 weeks, I lost 14 pounds. That's significant. I mean, I know I'm not some skinny, fast runner, but I run a lot. I'm not bad shape. To drop 14 pounds is a lot. But, I feel great. So, here's my plan as I get ready for the Eastern Divide 50K in June and beyond:
I'm going to continue to eat good, whole food without ingesting added sugar or eating junk as a regular part of my diet. If I want to have some ice cream, I'll go out to Ben & Jerry's. I won't just have it in the freezer and eat it all the time. I plan to keep eating actual food instead of sandwiches for lunch each day. Sure, If I'm out somewhere and I want a sandwich, I'll get one, But, it'll be thoughtful. I want to see how this new way of eating shakes out over time. I think it can really make me healthier and faster.

My Take-Aways from 30 (now 31) days of Whole 30  eating: 
1. If you think about what you're eating and why, it's a lot easier to make good choices.
2. If you think you're hungry, ask yourself if you would take the time to cook something up. If the answer is yes, you are might really be hungry. If you just want to grab a bowl of Chex Mix, you don't really need to eat.
3. You don't have to eat a bunch of junk to run ultras.
4. For me, eating a lot of meat isn't a bad thing. We ate A LOT of veggies, but more meat than I normally eat. But, I happened to have to go to the Doctor for a normal check up during week 4. The labs results were excellent. Lots of meat and eggs didn't raise my cholesterol. In fact, all my results were the best they've been in years.
4. Sugar is the devil. No seriously, they put it in everything. And you don't need it. Let it be a fun treat, but don't let it rule your life. I didn't think it was ruling mine, but Week 1 was pretty strong proof otherwise.
5. If you're going to do this, partner up with someone you really love. It makes it a lot easier to suffer though the hangover. Misery loves company. Being accountable to someone you don't want to disappoint will help get you to the place where you're actually doing it for yourself. And that's where you have to get to stick with it long term.

This is just my take on it. I'm not a doctor (well, OK I'm a PhD, but not a real, prescription-pad carrying medical-type doctor), and I'm not a nutritionist. This is my experience. If you find it interesting, do your research. Even better ask a nutritionist. My friend Kristen Chang is a bad ass athlete and a RDN. Her blog is a great place to start. She's not a Whole 30 person, but her advice will set you on the path. Whole 30 might not even be for you. But, if you want to be fitter, healthier, or faster, she can help. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Umstead 100 2015 Race Report

It’s been quite some time since I’ve done any blogging. But, I just finished the Umstead 100 this weekend, and I wanted to take the opportunity to thank my amazing crew, the RD, the volunteers, and the organizers of Umstead 100. What better way to do that than to share a race report? So here goes:

A Little Backstory
Shortly before Ginger and I moved to Blacksburg, we met some amazing VT Ultra folks at the Terrapin Mtn 50K last year. Brett Sherfy, Jordan Chang, and the rest of the VT Ultra crew made us feel welcome and they’ve really helped Ginger and me feel inspired about running since we moved to town. The community here in Blacksburg is amazing. Brett and Jordan encouraged me to get a slot in this year’s Umstead 100, so I did. And, I’m so glad.

Since I haven’t been blogging, I’ll start with talking about training. I had hurt my ankle last fall right before the Barkley Fall Classic (not the big boy Barkley Marathons, the BFC is a 50K that offers just a little taste of the real Barkley). Because I’m who I am (not a smart man) I kept racing and training through the fall. I had a rough, but satisfying day at the BFC, and then PR’ed at the Marine Corps Marathon and the Mountain Masochist 50 miler in October. I took some time off, and then paced Brett at Hellgate, where I rolled my weak ankle yet again. I had already signed up for Umstead, so I took the rest of December off and dove headlong back into training on January 1st.  I didn’t get to train as much as I normally would for a 100 because of lingering ankle issues and a bout with the flu, but I had a solid training cycle and managed a little over 400 miles from Jan 1 to March 22. Not ideal. But, good enough. I hoped.

I assembled a plan to have a good day. My goal was (1) to finish, (2) to get a PR (Less than 24:53:49), (3) to go sub 23, (4) sub 22. More important was than my plan was my crew. First, Ginger was at the helm again as my crew chief. I know that when she is the one looking out for me, I will have everything I need to be successful. There is not a more supportive wife and best friend anywhere in the world. She is also one hell of a pacer. Second, Ginger’s mom Lois was going to be there to help manage the crew. She’s dynamite. Her encouragement and enthusiasm are unparalleled. Then, the pacers: Josh, my brother from another mother, was going to be there to motivate me through the dark places. I look up to him in ways that he probably can’t figure out because he’s so humble. And Jordan, the most encouraging and nicest human being anyone has ever met would also be there to pace, fix my ailments, and make me laugh.

Fast Forward to Race Day
I showed up at the starting line for Umstead feeling good but apprehensive. My ankle was feeling better thanks to a lot of help from Jordan. He told me I’d be just fine at Umstead. But, there’s always that nagging question. Can I do it? 100 miles is a long way. My last two 100 mile attempts (Leadville and Rocky Raccoon in 2014) had not turned out well. I timed out at Hope Pass at Leadville in 2013 and hurt my ankle at mile 60 at Rocky in 2014. I HAD to get this Monkey off my back. Umstead was my chance to do so.

I woke up at 4 am on Saturday feeling good. That’s saying something because I don’t do mornings. It was cold. Like in the 30’s. I had slept well in the back of Jordan’s Honda Fit (it’s actually quite roomy), and I got dressed and all ready to go. I wore a long sleeve shirt, shorts, my red bandana (a tradition), 2XU calf sleeves, and a pair New Balance 1210. It had rained Friday and Friday night, so I had 3 other pairs of shoes at the ready, but I hoped that it would stop raining so I wouldn’t have to waste time with shoe changes. Brett and I made our way to the start line after some time with our crew. Here's a shot of my and my awesome Crew Chief/Pacer

 Brett, Michelle, and Jordy

The race began in the dark. No rain. Just cold. The atmosphere was electric.

Lap 1: Miles 1-12.5
Planned Time: 2:20
Brett and I planned to run together as long as I could keep up with him. The first few miles went great as the explained the course layout to me. At mile 4, I had to stop at the port-o-john. My anxiety about getting the 100 monkey off my back was wreaking havoc on my stomach, so we split up so I wouldn’t slow him down at all. I managed to make the stop quick, and I was back out on the loop. I felt great and ran easy. I managed to have a great lap in spite of a few pit stops. I was quick in and out of the crew stop. So quick that I forgot to give Ginger a hug before I got too stinky. I felt bad about that.
Actual time 2:11

Lap 2: Miles 12.5-25
Planned Time: 2:30
Lap two was uneventful. I managed to chat with some new friends along the course, and I just ran easy- keeping my heart rate low and reminding myself that this was going to be a fun day. The course was great. I was enjoying the short climbs at a hiking pace and running the flats and downhill stretches. I got in an out of the crew stop and HQ aid station quickly thanks to my amazing crew. As I came through each time Ginger, Josh, Lois, and Jordan quickly changed out my hand bottle and gave me what I needed. I think I remembered to give Ginger a big hug. I hope I did.
Actual Time: 2:12

Lois keeping warm and Jordy Hanging out

Lap 3: Miles 25-37.5
Planned time: 2:35
Lap 3 was awful. My right knee felt like it got a knife stuck in it right before Aid Station 2 (mile 6.8 on the loop). I had been having a great race up to that point. But now, my knee was killing me. I was really worried. I kept thinking: “Oh no. Not again. I am NOT going out like this. There HAS to be a solution to this problem.” I decided to just walk the rest of the lap and get help when I got there. I was not ready or willing to give up. I saw Brett a few miles from the Start/Finish and Crew area and told him quickly that I was having trouble. I felt bad about spreading any bad vibes, but he made me feel better. I came down the hill to the Crew Station on my way to the S/F and told Jordan, Josh, and Ginger that I was having trouble. I knew they could help, so I went to the S/F aid station, fueled up, and then went to get fixed up. Jordan, Josh, and Alan Needle (my buddy who’s an athletic trainer at App. State) were on me like white on rice. Josh said, “It’s going to be OK, brother.” Jordan went right into fix it mode, made sure I was only hurting and not injured, and busted out the Kinsio tape. He taped me up and then Allen added his Athletic Trainer skills and made sure the tape would stay. They were like a NASCAR pit crew banging out the dent in a wrecked car and sending it back on the track. Within 30 minutes, I had a taped knee and dry socks (to avoid blisters). I grabbed my headphones so I could listen to some podcasts to get me out of my own head. Off I went. I decided I would just walk until I couldn’t walk anymore. I figured that if I was really injured my knee would swell and that would let me know. If it didn’t I was HTFU and push through. I had lost 30 minutes by walking so much on this lap, and I knew I had just lost lap 4 time with the taping, but I shifted my goal. Now finishing was the goal. I didn’t care of it took me 29:59:59. I was just going to finish.
Actual Time: 3:03

Lap 4: Miles 37.5-50
Planned Time: 2:40
I set out limping onto lap 4. I said, “Walk to the end of the airport spur. When you get back to the gate, you can bail if you have to. If you can, in the words of Gordy Ainsleigh, “Take one more step. Take one more step and just keep going until you can’t.” I felt a little better at the gate. I decided to push for AS #2 at mile 6.8 of the lap. I figured I could get a ride back from there if I had to quit. But, I didn’t want to quit. By the time I reached AS#2, I felt great. No more knee pain. It was MAGIC! Even though I started the lap with 30 minutes spent sitting in a chair, I finished the lap in 3:04! I was 10 minutes faster in actual moving time than I had planned. I came in at 10 hours and 40 minutes for 50 miles after losing an HOUR to the knee debacle. I knew from this point on that I would finish. And finish strong. My crew had saved my race! I am so grateful to them.
Actual Time: 3:04

Lap 5: Miles 50-62.5
Planned Time: 2:50
I left the Crew Station with buoyed spirits and Ginger at my side. I was so excited to finally have her pacing me at a 100 miler. Lots of people might not understand what this means, but to me it was glorious. To be able to share the trail and this special goal with my wife and best friend is just something special. We talked about running, our life since moving to BBurg, and our hilarious dog and cats. It was so much fun. She kept me moving and kept my spirits high. We speed hiked up the hills and Ginger laughed because I was walking up the hills faster than she walks at the Kroger, which is fast! We crushed that lap and came in way under my planned pace. We made it past the 100K mark with daylight to spare.
Actual time: 2:26

Lap 6: Miles 62.5-80
Planned Time: 3:05
Josh joined me for lap 6. Josh is a special kind of person. I won’t talk about his job because he’s too humble for me to talk about his job without making him sound like the bad ass that he is, but let’s just say he deserves more respect than anyone can ever show him. More than that though, Josh understands friendship and brotherhood in ways that few people do. I treasure spending time suffering with him out on the trail. He’s uniquely talented in the art of HTFU, and he kept us moving at an amazing clip! He told me stories that made me laugh, and we talked about everything under the sun as we passed runner after runner. We’d set our sights on someone, and track them down, tell them they were doing great, and then blow by them. It was awesome!
Actual Time: 2:40- That’s a 12:48 average pace for miles 62-80. Seriously!

Lap 7: Miles 80-92.5
Planned Time: 3:20
Ginger was ready to go to take me back out for Lap 7. I was feeling great. I was tired, and my quads were shredded. But, the energy at the Crew Station was high. Lois was full of encouragement. I was psyched to get to spend another lap out on the course with my awesome bride. We stepped it out and Ginger just kept encouraging me and telling me how great I was doing. She picked up right where Josh left off in terms of helping us pass person after person. It was so much fun. One of my favorite memories of the race was just walking with her, running where I could manage, and talking about how great our life is. We are so lucky. One of my other favorite moments of the race was meeting up with Dan Lenz early in the lap. Dan was crushing the course. Early in the lap, we ran into Dan when he was on his way to the finish. Dan is an amazing guy and one of the strongest runners out there. I called after him to tell him he was doing great and tell him that he was an inspiration. Dan, who was in contention for the win, stopped, walked back to me, shook my hand and told me I was doing great. I was so impressed by that. Here he is in contention for the win and he stops, goes back down a hill to encourage me before heading back out to turn in an amazing performance. That’s why I love Ultras. That’s what this community is about. So cool! Ginger kept me moving quickly and we made it back to the S/F ahead of schedule.
Actual Time: 3:10

Lap 8; Miles 80 to 100
Planned time: 3:35
As Ginger and I came into the Crew Area, Josh was all ready to go to take me on the final lap. Brett Sherfy was nearly finished at this point. Jordan was out pacing him to the finish, so it was up to Josh to get me home. Josh was still wrapped up in a sleeping bag (it was cold), but he dropped the bag and said, “Let’s go brother. We got this. It’ll be the easiest 12.5 mile ruck of your life because you won’t have a ruck on. Let’s go!” So we did. We moved it out as quickly as I could manage. Another race highlight: Josh and I are walking along telling stories and someone comes HAULING ASS up from behind us. We were like, Who THE HELL is moving that fast at this time of night? Of course it was Jordan. Not content to only get Brett finished in a good time, Jordan literally sprinted from the finish line out onto the course to track us down. I’m sure it was good Boston Marathon training for him since we had a four mile head start. He joined us and laughed and encouraged us as we moved through the final lap. We had a blast. I loved every second of the stories he had to tell about Brett’s final lap. Maybe Brett write a race report. I hope so.
Actual Time: 3:25

Total Time: 22:51:00. New PR by 2 hours, 2 minutes, and 49 seconds. All thanks to my amazing crew!

I can’t say thank you enough to Ginger, Lois, Jordan, Josh, Brett, and Michelle. You helped me reach a goal that was really important to me. More than that, I am grateful to have shared the weekend with you.

Here’s a link to my Strava data if you’d like to see more about the course profile:

What you need to know about Umstead 100
·      If you haven’t done this race, do it. The RD, the organizers, and the volunteers are literally the best. They want everyone to be successful. They take care of every runner. From first place to the last runner, they make everyone feel welcome and cared for. They take care of your crew like you would want them to: like family. That’s important. And uncommon.

·      The course is fast, the footing is great, the aid stations are top-notch, and the vibe is electric.